This is one strange motion picture.
After making the animated science-fiction adventure "Ghost in the Shell" in 1996, director Mamoru Oshii took a five-year hiatus from directing before returning with his 2001 live-action sci-fi epic, "Avalon." Made with the backing of a Japanese production company, the movie was shot entirely in Poland, partly because the director liked the Polish locations and partly to cut costs, using a cast of Polish actors largely unknown outside Europe. When the film was released in Japan, it was met with wholesale indifference. When it was entered in a number of film festivals around the world, it failed to pick up an international theatrical distributor. Thus, the movie is making its American première on DVD.
"Avalon" is a fascinating picture in a lot of ways, but it's not hard to understand why it wouldn't appeal to everyone. While it has the look and feel of both an anime presentation and a big-scale, special-effects extravaganza, it is often slow and unrelentingly bleak rather than action oriented. It will overjoy viewers looking for a leisurely fantasy departure and bore to tears others hoping for another "Matrix." There is no question that "Avalon" is sometimes gorgeous to look at, but this is no "2001: A Space Odyssey." The pace of the movie can be ponderous, sometimes leaden, without enough plot, characterizations, or ideas to sustain its entire length.
The premise of the movie is that in the near future young people bored out of their skulls with own existence get addicted to playing a virtual-reality war game called "Avalon," a game so dangerous it's been outlawed by the government because some players don't always survive its simulated thrills. Players don headsets and become immersed in a total combat experience. The environment of Avalon becomes so real to them, they feel it is their only world, and some players are loathe to give it up. Still others, however, are left brain-dead from the game; such victims are called the "unreturned." The game is named after the legendary Isle of Avalon, the place where dead heroes like King Arthur were supposed to find their final rest.
A young woman named Ash (Malgorzata Foremniak) is the movie's main character, a Class-A warrior at playing the game, who is compulsively trying to reach its final level, the mythical "Special A," a secret level that has no escape and a "degree of difficulty that is off the charts." The game is played in clandestine gaming parlors, and players compete for points and cash. Presumably, Ash supports herself by playing the game, she's that good at it, since there is no other indication of her having a regular job.
Make no mistake about Ash being another Ripley or Lara Croft, though. She's good at what she does, but this is not an action movie, and she is not a traditional action hero, despite the Samurai garb she wears during her role-playing. She's simply a very sad, very troubled, very lonely, very desperate woman with nothing else in life but the game. Given her extremely attractive appearance and apparent intelligence, this would seem a contradictory circumstance, but there you have it. Not all people are happy with their lot in life.
Nor are there any likable heroes or dastardly villains, chiefly because we never get to know the characters well enough. Ash is a cipher, despite her long, enigmatic stares into space that signify nothing but despair. The men she meets, Murphy (Jerzy Gudejko), Bishop (Dariusz Biskupski), Stunner (Bartek Swiderski), and the godlike Game Master (Weadyslaw Kowalski), are hardly in the picture long enough to be more than introduced. And no one so much as smiles in the picture. Downer.
What's more, the look of the film, done up mainly in sepia monotones to effect a drab, twilight atmosphere, neither day nor night, seems like that of every other postapocalyptic landscape we've seen, albeit more elegiac. And the movie's future society has developed a technology so advanced its people can produce a video game of unprecedented realism, yet their computers are so crappy looking they seem to come from World War II surplus.
You'll also find a good deal of borrowing in "Avalon." The names Ash and Bishop are obviously from the first two "Alien" films. The dark tone is clearly from Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner." The main character resembles Luc Besson's "La Femme Nikita." The themes are reminiscent of those in David Cronenberg's "eXistenZ." And impressions of "The Matrix" show up everywhere. Even Oshii's own "Ghost in the Shell" is evident throughout, along with traces of "2001." None of which makes "Avalon" a bad film, just a derivative one.
Oshii is without doubt a gifted and imaginative director, but he seems so steeped in oppressive sci-fi anime that this live-action film of his is all moody style and little substance. The shots he gets are often stunningly handsome, but they serve little purpose, like a well-animated video game that is, after all, just another first-person shooter. What we get from Oshii is some beautiful, haunting, occasionally poetic imagery but no depth of character to the people who inhabit his creation and no serious ideas that haven't been expounded before.
The ending, which comes after what seems like far more than the film's 107 minutes, is supposed to surprise, shock, and bewilder us, an apparent attempt to be profound and thought-provoking but which doesn't give us much to ponder. In what universe does Ash feel most comfortable, the real or the fantasy? Reality is what one chooses to believe, the film seems to be saying, a very old philosophy. We create and order our own worlds, and they are different for each of us. We accept that, but what else is new?
If my criticisms sound harsh, it's not that I didn't enjoy "Avalon" but that I kept seeing so much more potential in it. It's not a bad film, and it makes a wonderful antidote to the ultraviolent thrillers that splatter blood all over the screen for the sake of sensationalism. The movie's slow tempo and relative lack of action can also be a pleasant diversion for the same reason: It's a refreshing change of pace. Yet I kept feeling there ought to have been more that could have been done or said, more sophisticated thoughts or characterizations we could have been left with, something more than what a typical video game provides.
Because much of the color in "Avalon" was purposely muted, bleached, softened, and masked to achieve a dreary monotone, it's hard to evaluate the overall video quality. I suspect that the picture we see is pretty much the way director Oshii intended it to look. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with the transfer; a high bit rate ensures a clean and clear image, free of grain, pixel jitters, moiré effects, and the like. And, without giving away too much, I can say that when the picture is good, it's among the best I have ever seen. Interestingly, the original aspect ratio of the film's 35mm camera negative was 1.33:1, which was matted for theatrical showing at 1.66:1 and is further reduced here to 1.74:1, I assume to simulate a wider screen.
The sound is rendered in Dolby Digital 5.1, and although it is not state-of-the-art, it does its job commendably well. Dynamic impact is strong, bass is reasonably deep, left/right stereo spread is wide, and transient response is quick and solid. Voices, too, are well rendered and sometimes even follow the actors as they move across the screen. The surround channels are used sparingly, however, so we don't get a lot of visceral excitement from them. They are used more subtly, for occasional ricocheting bullets, rain drops, distant utterances, or musical ambiance enhancement.
There are only a couple of extras, but they are worthwhile. The main bonus is a fifty-seven minute featurette, "The Special FX of Avalon," that explores in detail the creation of the film's computer effects, including the bleaching and masking of scenes to achieve the desired color tones. The second bonus is a twenty-one minute interview with director Mamoru Oshii in which he tells us about himself, his childhood attraction to sci-fi films, and his ideas about borderlines in "Avalon." Both featurettes are available with English or French subtitles.
The extras conclude with a mere sixteen scene selections; previews of other Miramax productions; English, French, and Polish spoken languages; and English and French subtitles, plus English captions for the hearing impaired. Incidentally, the film's native Polish is the default spoken language, but since there is very little dialogue in the film, I can recommend the decent English dub to anyone who doesn't appreciate subtitles. This is doubly important when you consider the film is primarily a delight to the eye, and taking one's eyes off the picture for even a moment does it a disservice.
Without much plot to follow, without much physical action, without enough innovative ideas, and without anyone to root for or hiss, we're left with the movie's imagery. For many viewers, these mesmerizing images will be more than enough to sustain their interest. For others, the picture will be a monumental bore.
I felt about "Avalon" much as I did about Steven Soderbergh's "Solaris." They have interesting story ideas that on retrospect aren't as deep or insightful as the filmmakers would like us to believe; and while the imagery and production design in both films are imaginative, the films themselves are labored and sluggish. If I had to choose between them, I'd recommend "Avalon" without hesitation for its visual delights, but, frankly, I have no desire to watch either of the movies again any time soon.